Since the start of his presidency, Joe Biden has been wary of prisoner swaps. Whenever the prospect of negotiating the exchange of those held in the US for Americans held overseas was broached, members of his administration would exhibit reluctance, according to a person involved in such discussions. For some of the families of Americans detained abroad, it was a frustrating obstacle.
Then came a breakthrough last February, just as Russia was about to launch a tank blitz toward Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. Russian officials signaled through intermediaries that they were willing to talk about the release of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who had been arrested in a Moscow hotel in 2018, held on espionage charges, and then fallen seriously ill in Russian detention. Reed’s failing health made getting to a deal even more urgent. Russian officials agreed in April to allow Reed to return home in exchange for the Biden Administration’s release of Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot and convicted drug smuggler.
The exchange for Reed created a new opening in Biden’s approach to hostage negotiations. It marked the beginning of the administration’s acknowledgement that swapping prisoners for Americans wrongfully held in autocratic countries was another tool that could be used in securing their release. While critics of such exchanges say they incentivize the kidnapping of Americans, others involved in such delicate diplomatic efforts argue the evidence on that is thin and that such hardline policies ignore the plight of Americans currently held.
In July, the Biden administration put another offer on the table with Moscow: release of the convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for the return of basketball star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan. Griner, a basketball star, was arrested at a Moscow airport in February for having cannabis oil in her luggage. She was sentenced to nine years imprisonment after pleading guilty to drug charges, and was recently transferred to a Russian penal colony. Whelan was arrested in a Moscow hotel in December 2018 during a trip to Russia for a friend’s wedding. After what he has called a “sham trial,” he was convicted of espionage in June 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
For months, Russia rejected the exchange offer. Then, a few weeks ago, a counteroffer arrived. Russia was willing to do a swap for Bout, but only for Griner’s release.
Amid the news of Griner’s release on Thursday, the Biden White House stressed that foreign governments should not assume that swaps will be a common part of negotiations to secure the release of Americans detained overseas.
“Given how extremely rare this is, any inference that somehow this has become the norm would be mistaken—I don’t think governments around the world would be wise to draw that inference.” said a senior administration official on Thursday. “But in the rare case, when there is an imperative to bring Americans home, which is a real priority for the President, sometimes there are no alternatives left,” the official said.
Biden’s use of prisoner swaps does not mark a shift in US policy from the previous administration. In December 2019, the Trump administration secured the release of Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang, who Iranians had charged with espionage and imprisoned for three years, by releasing an Iranian stem-cell scientist Masoud Soleimani, who had been arrested in 2018 for trying to export research materials without a license. The next year, Iran released American Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran, in exchange for the release of Majid Taheri, also known as Matteo Taerri, an Iranian-American doctor who had been charged with violating U.S. sanctions. Near the end of his presidency, Donald Trump also approved of the Afghanistan government releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners as part of his 2020 deal to set a timeline for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Paul Whelan’s family was told on Wednesday that the US was close to securing Griner’s release, but that Paul would be left behind. The communication was a courtesy the Biden administration didn’t extend to the Whelans before Russia announced the release of Reed in April. Paul Whelan’s twin brother David Whelan said on Thursday in a statement to ABC News that the fact that Paul wasn’t part of the latest deal is “a public disappointment for us” as well as “a catastrophe for Paul.” David Whelan also said, “The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”
After Griner’s release on Thursday, Paul Whelan spoke to CNN on the phone from the Russian penal colony where he is being held. “I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up,” Whelan said, “I was arrested for a crime that never occurred.” Whelan told CNN that in recent weeks he was “led to believe that things were moving in the right direction, and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon.”
White House officials acknowledged that disappointment. “Through every step of the process, we have sought to bring Paul Whelan home and that will not change—that will continue to be our commitment,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday. “Regrettably, due to the nature of the totally illegitimate charges they levied against Paul, the Russians are treating this situation differently.” The senior administration official said that any jubilation felt on Thursday about the release of Griner is “very much tempered” by the awareness of the “unacceptable” circumstances of Whelan’s imprisonment in Russia.
In July, Biden announced new steps to improve how the U.S. handles and prevents Americans from being held overseas. In an executive order, Biden announced more tools to sanction mid-level bureaucrats involved in wrongful detention of Americans overseas, and to do more to warn American travelers about what countries pose a danger of detaining Americans for use as negotiating pawns.
Biden also directed federal agencies to increase the amount of intelligence information they share with families about what the U.S. knows about the health and location of their loved ones and what steps the U.S. is taking to secure their release. Biden’s executive orders were designed to build on the 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage Taking Accountability Act, named after Levinson who disappeared in Iran in 2007.
The State Department has begun flagging countries that show a pattern of wrongful detentions with a “D” in its public travel warnings. That indicator joins the current designation of “K” for countries where Americans are at higher risk of kidnapping.
“Something every American should take from this situation is that no American is safe in places under Russian jurisdiction or influence,” said Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It must be clear that Paul Whelan should have been part of this deal; he is a Marine who fought for our country, and he is a hero.”
Along with U.S. government officials, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and experienced negotiators at the Richardson Center for Global Engagement have been working closely with Griner’s family toward her release, which included many trips to Moscow and the region, as well as meetings with officials at the Russian embassy in Washington, according to a person familiar with the talks. Those talks included conversations to release Paul Whelan, as well as three other Americans including Grady Kurpasi, a retired Marine and Iraq War veteran, who was last seen in April fighting alongside Ukrainians in a volunteer force in southern Ukraine. “Often, the price we pay for bringing our fellow Americans home to their families is unseemly, but it is the right thing to do,” said Richardson in a statement. “We remain very concerned for Paul Whelan and committed to continue to work on his safe return, as we have been for the last four years,” Richardson said.
Mickey Bergman, the vice president and executive director of the Richardson Center, was involved in the talks over Griner’s release and said he doesn’t see the trade a sign of a major shift in the Biden Administration’s willingness to do more swaps. It is “case by case,” Bergman says. “It’s not the first nor last trade.”